Review of “Twisted Shapes of Light,” by William Jolliff

Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015. ISBN: 9781498208406

Reviewed by Jeffrey Bilbro (Windhover 2015 contributor) @jeff_bilbro

[Note: William Jolliff has served as a Contributing Editor for Windhover since 2012.]

“Jesus, I am old and academic, and I have much to learn. / I would like to read the rest of them, the rest of their stories.” Thus concludes the narrator of “Lunch with the Lord’s Anarchists” after describing the motley assortment of people attending a Jesus Radicals Conference. This desire to learn the stories of others, particularly those on the margins of society, motivates William Jolliff’s new collection of poems, Twisted Shapes of Light. As a former student of Jolliff’s, I’ve long enjoyed finding his work in periodicals, but this volume gathers many of his best poems and should gain him the wider reading he deserves. His work certainly merits attention, not only for the poetic gifts it exhibits, but even more so because his poems teach readers to see the light of grace in neglected places.

In one poem, this old academic realizes that the girl who “slumped / in the back row” of his class while he tried to make The Scarlet Letter interesting was herself pregnant. During finals week, she married the child’s father, another former student, and now, some dozen years later, they still live nearby. The poet apologizes all these years later, finally putting the dates together and imagining the difficulties that made this student struggle in his class: “But when I click the years it all makes sense: // You were sick. Your last semester was your first / trimester. I’m sorry.” As the internal rhymes in these three lines indicate, Jolliff pieces together these stories with great tenderness and nuance; his attention to poetic detail matches his care for the narratives he relates and ponders in these pages, finding glimpses of the divine in lives twisted by difficulties and pain.

Many of the stories Jolliff tells are unsettling; he overturns traditional notions of success and heroism by focusing on those at the bottom of our social hierarchies. Jolliff’s Quaker background certainly informs his understanding of the gospel, and he writes in the biblical tradition of the prophets who railed against the oppression of the rich, Hannah who praised God for raising “the poor out of the dust,” and Mary who proclaimed that God had “put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.” Over the course of this collection, “this old Friend”—as Jolliff describes himself in one poem—strives to welcome the stories of everyone: the aging hippies protesting war on the street corner and the angry teens who drive by shouting obscenities; the old and broken residents of a local nursing home and the homeless who gather at the Union Gospel Mission; the children who pour out of the evangelical school during recess and a pair of Mormon elders who come to his door.

In one section, Jolliff reads a series of biblical stories from this same bottom-up perspective. He considers the five foolish virgins who were locked out of the wedding feast, or the people and animals lost in the flood while Noah and his family survived, or Ananias and Sapphira whose natural feelings led to their costly lie. In one such poem, Jolliff recollects a Sunday school teacher telling the story of Elisha and the she-bears. The teacher uses this narrative to enjoin his students to respect and honor their authorities, but of course Jolliff imagines another side of the story:

I wonder

if it pays to fill the twisted story in:
the forty-two mothers and forty-two
fathers and forty-two acts of love,

all brought to deadly naught by a pair
of divinely directed beasts
and God’s overly sensitive prophet.

Such questions necessarily arise
whenever we try to believe in grace
or bank off its angles, so bloody and transient.

These are the twisted shapes that reveal grace’s rougher side. By reading these stories “slant,” as Emily Dickinson might say, Jolliff fingers their bloody edges, seeking to extend Christ’s grace further than we might like.

After all, Christians often specialize in prescribing boundaries to grace or co-opting the Bible to reinforce our fondly-held beliefs. When his five-year-old neighbor asks him “What’s your favorite Bible story, Bill?” he lies and says he likes them all. But after recounting the ways his holiness upbringing gave him a warped view of God—“I grew up with a healthy fear of tent stakes, / and I can’t swim in whale-infested waters”—he concludes on a softer note: “But listen, little one, yours was a good question: / I have always loved spring, and every empty tomb.” Somehow, God’s voice still speaks, despite all the ways that we manage to screw up the good news.

In his poems about life as a boy on an Ohio farm—a life hard and yet tinged with moments of beauty—Jolliff employs this same imaginative perspective, focusing on the poor and marginalized. He celebrates an “Uncle” who gave away all the crops he grew to the poor neighbors, in spite of his family’s protests. And he remembers an old sheep farmer who was kind to him as a boy, in spite of the difficulties that Jolliff now knows he suffered through. He concludes this poem by honoring the sheep farmer for his efforts to make a whole life from the broken pieces he was given: “What good is memory, if it’s not / forgiving? Let me be the one to say your grace: / We thank thee, Lord, for life and the joy of living.” So although his faith now differs from the holiness tradition he was raised in, Jolliff finds value in the earnest desire that old country church cultivated:

I can think of far worse ways
to spend a summer evening, than kneeling
in the company of thirsty souls who want this:

to press their lips against the fleshy ear of God.

By practicing a forgiving memory, Jolliff discerns beauty and genuine holiness even in a faith tradition that he thinks falls short of the gospel’s call.

As readers journey through this book, they learn to listen for God’s voice in unexpected places. In “Dust of the Gods,” for instance, one sentence stretches across the poem’s fourteen lines, describing an interminable, hot day spent sitting on a tractor. Yet in the midst of the long, dusty work, beyond the migraine induced by diesel fumes, the boy driving the tractor sees a whirlwind approaching, breaking upon the monotony of the day. This whirlwind, like the one from which God spoke to Job or the one that took Elijah up to heaven, seems to indicate God’s personal interest in this lonely boy: “he waits for Elisha’s electric voice, / and although he doesn’t hear it, he learns the way light / can shine through pain, and he learns to keep listening.” Jolliff’s poems likewise teach their readers to keep listening, even when God doesn’t speak according to our expectations.

In “The Labyrinth Speaks,” Jolliff writes from the perspective of a concrete prayer labyrinth as it recounts the prayers of those pilgrims who walk its slow spiral:

I serve them all, and on my concrete way
they learn as much as their steps will let me say.
Like any winter road, I’ve felt the burn of salt,

the throb of loss, when the heart’s a vault
without a key. But sometimes doors fall open.
I’m only the stone, but I help that happen.

By speaking for the labyrinth, the poem itself becomes a sort of prayer walk; readers tread its lines, turn at the verge of each, and murmur the prayers this concrete way remembers. While such prayers may not make anything happen, the final line suggests that this labyrinth is, as Auden might say, a “way of happening,” a way of following the one who rolls away the stone, leaving an “empty tomb.”

The image of pilgrimage returns in one of the final poems, in which the poet imagines seeking solace in Walmart’s “pale blue labyrinth of cheap plastic / and cellophane cupcakes.” Traversing this consumer maze—an unlikely place to find God’s presence—he comes upon “polyester angels” pointing the way. Remembering his own pilgrimages to unlikely shrines, he thinks of his daughter, walking El Camino de Santiago:

I pray she finds her way, that in the ache
of her back, in the blisters she breaks today,
she’ll find her reasons for walking, or at least
the twisted shapes of light our Lord can take.

While Jolliff admits he doesn’t know whether his daughter’s pilgrimage will be successful, readers of this book can find “the twisted shapes of light our Lord can take” by listening to the stories recorded here. These poems invite us on a pilgrimage where we might learn to see the divine light that illuminates dark margins, weedy verges, and forgotten fringes.